Contribution of Co-ops to Platform for Action: Econ Structures

  This document has been made available in electronic format by
         the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)

            BEIJING, CHINA, 4 - 15 SEPTEMBER 1995

                  THE DRAFT PLATFORM OF ACTION *

                      New York, March 1995


     * For information purposes only. Not an official document 
       of the United Nations and not officially edited.


The co-operative model of business enterprise is a conceptually
simply but universally applicable organizational solution to a
common problem: that faced by an individual wishing to establish
an enterprise but unable to do so alone due to a lack of
resources, notably capita, or access to markets. The solution is
to combine with others in a jointy-owned enterprise. This
organizational model, constituted by the co-operative enterprise,
has been tested thoroughly in the most competitive market
conditions, revealing an unrivalled capacity for developing
member-controlled economic structures and creating and protecting
productive employment.

A co-operative enterprise is a means whereby any group of persons
may seek to realize their ambitions. For women it is especially
appropriate, and often the only available affective means for
increasing economic and social well-being. It provides better
control of the economic environment; combines resources, however
limited, so that these become operationally effective; manages
common resources efficiently; ensures that returns accrue only
to member-owners, remain under their joint control and are used
primarily for reinvestment; establishes formal legal status,
thereby protecting common assets and facilitating operation in
the formal market; and provides access to formal auditing,
thereby encouraging confidence among members, suppliers and

Control over business policies and practices by member-owners is
a basic principle of the co-operative enterprise. It is assured
by special structures and procedures applied in the context of
the widely acknowledged co-operative values of mutual
responsibility, equity, honesty and openness. Members, managers
and employees are all involved in making decisions and setting
policies. Most importantly, member-owners, and often managers and
other employees, are motivated, because they are beneficiaries,
to ensure high levels of productivity.

Supply and marketing co-operatives can provide appropriate inputs
of commodities and services at affordable prices. Through their
introduction of technical and organizational innovations these
co-operatives continuously upgrade their capability of supporting
member productivity. Co-operatives of this type successfully cut
out middlemen and assure market influence to small producers.
They are a major organizational means to secure the existence and
employment maintaining capability of their many millions of
member enterprises.

Moreover, members of most new co-operatives do not have to rely
entirely on their own efforts. A large co-operative movement
exists to sport them, offering advice and information; membership
in financial, supply and marketing co-operative systems;
specialized co-operative development institutions; broad
international co-operative technical assistance programmes; and
support from trade unions, governments and intergovernmental

The contribution of co-operatives to the creation and protection
of productive employment and to the eradication of poverty
continues to be a principal means whereby many millions of
persons, including large numbers of women, integrate more
effectively in society. Not only are persons furnished with the
material conditions and the economic base necessary for equitable
participation, but they are able to gain self-respect and dignity
and to move, from a condition labelled negative (in the
perception of wider society) to one labelled positive. They
become identifiable as contributors to local economies. No longer
are they seen as a drain on resources or a cause of social
tension. Recognition of their real contribution to prosperity
eases tensions and discrimination declines.

This economic empowerment is particularly important for persons
suffering, not only from unemployment and poverty, but also from
exploitation and discrimination on the basis of sociocultural
characteristics, gender, age or disability. For them, co-
operatives are frequently the only form of organization capable
of providing an escape from poverty, obtaining a more secure
economic status or avoiding falling into poverty.

This is so because co-operative enterprises can be established
by any group of persons united voluntarily to meet common
economic and social needs through a jointly-owned and
democratically-controlled enterprise. They can be set up and
operated successfully by otherwise highly disadvantaged persons,
including women. Co-operatives and their members form a
supportive network at the community, national and international

Consequently, co-operative business enterprise form a significant
means whereby groups of individuals are able to pool their
resources, whether of land, equipment, capital, knowledge or
labour in order to protect these assets and to enhance
opportunities for their effective application to viable economic
activity. In addition to producer co-operatives, family-owned and
other small and medium-sized enterprises in primary production,
manufacturing and services, join together to establish co-
operatives which supply inputs and market outputs. These co-
operatives frequently diversify into the manufacture of inputs,
the processing, transportation and retail distribution of
outputs, and numerous supportive and ancillary services, such as
market research, insurance, advertising.

In India, for example, the Self-employed Women's Association in
Ahmedabad, a women's trade union whose aim is to obtain a fair
deal for self-employed women in the informal sector, has very
successfully used the co-operative model of organization. One of
its first development efforts was to organize a women's co-
operative bank. By 1991, the Association had promoted the
establishment by self-employed women of 61 women's co-operatives,
whose membership included 25,000 women. Included were dairy,
handicraft, consumer and housing co-operatives. A federation of
these enterprises provided services and assistance in technical
and managerial areas, production, storage and acquisition of raw
materials, product design and sales.

Possibly the most successful co-operative development in India
of significance for women has been the AMUL system of milk co-
operatives which expanded from Amand, Gujerat to become a
national movement within a period of 27 years. Village-level
primary milk producers' co-operatives whose members are
individual family-farm milk producers, primarily women, are
grouped into District Co-operative Milk Producers Unions and
State Co-operative Milk Marketing Federations. This highly
integrated structure provides inputs and extension services,
procures milk and milk products. A National Dairy Development
Board, although organized by the Government in 1965 as an agency
to promote and replicate the successful model of milk co-
operatives at Anand, and which was made a statutory corporation
in 1987, has strongly supported the autonomy of the milk co-
operatives and has led a campaign to remove all unnecessary
controls and interference by governmental agencies. Because of
the efficiency of the milk co-operative system, national
production has increased from 17.41 million litres in 1951 to
56.4 million litres in 1991-1992, resulting in a per capita
consumption increase from 132 to 183, in spite of population

Within these structures, particularly in regions where women
traditionally predominate in some economic activity, and in
sub-sectors where women are usually more active than men, women
have formed their own co-operatives. More normally, women are
engaged as member-owners and as employees, together with men, in
mixed membership co-operative business enterprises.

Co-operative enterprises that supply inputs, including technical
training and guidance, to members who are independent
agricultural producers have made special efforts to reach women
farmers, whether themselves heads of families and owners of
enterprises, or members of households whose heads and therefore
titular co-operative members are men. For example, the Indian
Farmers' Fertiliser Co-operative Ltd., the largest fertiliser
producer and supply co-operative enterprise in Asia with 30,000
agricultural enterprises as member-owners, provides training in
all aspects of farm management and operations to farm women.

Association with co-operative through membership has provided
opportunities to women that would not otherwise exist, a measure
of economic empowerment, and a degree of economic security.
Certainly, the situation in most co-operatives reflects that in
the communities in which they operate: and to the extent that
women there are not equal to men, this is reflected in their
still unequal status and condition within the co-operative.
Nevertheless, because of the internal democratic structures and
procedures which are characteristic of any co-operative, and
because the international co-operative movement supports national
movements in active campaigns for the advancement of women to a
position of equality with men, the association of women with co-
operatives is frequently more beneficial that   with other types
of economic organization  local circumstances, and the co-
operative movement provides a valuable channel for women's

In addition to economic empowerment through member-ownership, and
through participation in direction and management, association
with co-operatives is beneficial to women in that it provides
numberous opportunities for self-employment as
owner-member-workers, and as employees, in co-operatives
themselves, as well as in other enterprises whose viability is
assured by the fact that they are themselves members of
purchasing, supply or marketing co-operatives.

Women who have been made unemployed have found economic security
by establishing or joining producer co-operatives, or labour co-
operatives, which have increased very considerably in numbers in
many of the advanced market economies: examples include
publishing, communications, community development, service
provision, and entrepreneurial inputs supply co-operatives.

Co-operative business enterprises have been in the forefront of
efforts to improve the terms of employment and working conditions
for women employees, particularly in order to take into account
their simultaneous responsibilities for the management and
operation of micro-enterprises in the household sector. For
example, co-operatives in Sweden pioneered equal opportunity
programmes. THe first such programme in the Swedish labour market
was adopted in 1978 by Folksam, an insurance co-operative group
with which more than half the Swedeish adult population has some
kind of insurance policy. In 1992 Folksam was awarded first prize
as an Equal Opportunity Employer by the Equal Opportunity
Ombudsamn and by the business magazine "Veckans Affarer". More
recently, a major consumer co-operative, Kooperativa Forbundet,
has adopted an ambitious plan for equal rights. It includes
provisions for equal pay, education and training for women
employees, and gender sensitization seminars for at least 70 per
cent of its employees in the first year of the plan's
implementation. In the United Kingdom, the Co-operative Insurance
Society adopted an equal opportunity policy in 1991 and the
Co-operative Bank has also adopted policies which included
quidelines for recruitment, training and education and flexible
working arrangements, including provision for a five-year career
break for women employees.

Women's economic condition is improved by their membership in
numerous forms of co-operative enterprise that supply goods and
services which women in particular use as inputs to the household
sector, that is to their work as managers and workers in the
micro-enterprises constituted by households. This improves the
efficiency of that sector, and thereby releases women's labour
to an increasing degree,enabling them, if they wish or find it
necessary, to work in occupations which bring them not only
higher and more independent incomes but greater recognition in

Moreover, co-operative movements operating at national and
international levels have been able to lobby in favour of
improved employment conditions, including those for women
specifically. Because of their very broad dimensions and
significant contributions to the national economy, this has had
an impact, often with that of women's organizations, trade
unions, farmers' organizations and small-and middle-size
employers' associations.